James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography Of An Ex-Coloured Man

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Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography and James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man (henceforth referred to as Ex-Coloured Man) both depict the narrators’ experiences in integrating into their societies. While Franklin’s The Autobiography was written in 1771, Johnson’s Ex-Coloured Man was written in 1912. As the former was written by a white man before the United States of America had achieved independence, it became the dominant narrative that shaped early understanding of American identity. Being written much later by a black man after independence was achieved, Johnson’s Ex-Coloured Man is a counter narrative addressing the American black experience. Through the stylistic presentation of both texts as autobiographies,…show more content…
In The Autobiography, Franklin creates a list of virtues he endeavoured to demonstrate to manufacture an identity from scratch, boasting that the emulation of these virtues was the reason for his social success. With the display of virtues such as humility, Franklin changed the initial view others had of him as “proud”, “overbearing, and rather insolent” to receiving “a readier reception and less contradiction” from others towards his ideas (14). Here, Franklin achieves social support from others through the invention of a virtuous identity. Not only does he achieve social support through his constructed identity, Franklin also gains social approval, successfully assimilating into the American society. Conversely, the ex-coloured man reinvents his identity while following a set of societal expectations. He mentions that black people’s “efforts to elevate [themselves] socially are looked upon as a sort of absurd caricature of ‘white civilisation’” (Johnson 79). As a black man himself, the ex-coloured man experiences such discrimination that marginalises and hinders the integration of a black man into American society. He himself finds that the disassociation from his black identity removes the “label of inferiority pasted on [his] forehead” and allows him “every possible opportunity to make a white man’s success” (Johnson 90-91). When creating an identity to successfully assimilate into American society, the ex-coloured man chooses to construct one that comes with white privilege. Framing the construction of his identity around what is more socially acceptable, he does not merely create an identity, but conforms to societal perspectives in order to successfully integrate into American society.
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